Heads of successful schools are unobtrusive team leaders who listen to their staff, not the charismatic and domineering figures of popular myth, according to a new report on inner-city schools, published yesterday.
Good pupil behaviour emerged as even more important than had previously been thought in determining a school's success.
Two schools of the 11 surveyed had prefect systems, but the most significant common feature was that the codes of conduct were clearly laid down.
Well-kept and litter-free buildings also play a vital role in raising standards, says the report from the National Commission on Education, an independent think-tank.
The report, published just a week after a Government "hit squad" recommended the closure of Hackney Downs School in London, tells the story of 11 schools with many disadvantaged children that have succeeded against the odds.
It cites a Welsh primary school where the head has broken down barriers with children by putting lizards in his office and allowing the children and their parents to come in and tend them at any time.
At a Birmingham girls' school where 60 per cent of pupils are on free school meals - against a national average of 16 per cent) - the percentage of top GCSE grades has risen from 2 to 29 per cent in the last six years.
Professor Margaret Maden, co-author of the study, attacked Government inspectors for expecting failing schools to turn around their performance overnight. Real improvement took many years.
The commission sent teams representing education, business and the community into the schools, including such figures as Howard Davies, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England. They found the head, good pupil behaviour, careful measurement of pupils' progress, common purpose, the environment and relationships with parents and the community were key factors in schools' success.
The word "understated" is more likely to be used about a successful head than "charismatic". As one teacher put it: "The overriding impression of the head is one of irresistible cheerfulness in a low-key and unobtrusive way."
Clean and bright buildings were a feature of all 11 schools. "When the head wanted to improve the staff room by painting the walls and re-covering the chairs, I thought she should be spending the money on books. Now I know why," said one teacher.
Another school put "beautiful and interesting things" such as plants and fish tanks throughout the school, and repaired broken windows immediately.
Sometimes, the very threat of closure drew parents and teachers together, so that they were able to raise standards. "It was noteworthy that in these schools the will to succeed was strengthened, rather than weakened, by calamities."
Launching the report yesterday, Robin Squire, the schools minister, said: "There is much more consensus about what is needed to help schools to help themselves. There is a growing culture of self-improvement in our schools."
David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said the example of the 11 schools was inspiring. "I get tired of hearing about people who feel they are hard done by when others who have been even more hard done by are actually doing something about it."
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